So, if you are thinking about being a chief information officer in any enterprise – public, private, corporate – there are a few basic rules that apply across the board. Watching the recent antics of White House communications officers Sean Spicer and Anthony Scaramouchi (who goes down as the shortest-lived communications director in White House history) offers an opportunity to repeat a few of the basic rules.
- Like a doctor, do no harm. You are there to help not hurt. While it is impossible for a chief press officer to be invisible, she or he should try to be.
- At least keep your personal drama offstage. Scaramucci’s filthy rant to Ryan Lizza at the New Yorker, his personal grandstanding and even his marital problems were distractions that made him the story rather than the President. He deliberately added to the narrative about the chaotic, ineffective White House as a nest of vipers. Spicer too, became a major distraction, in part because the President made him one with his public grousing about Spicer’s poor performance on the job. His personal foibles made him an easy target and Melissa McCarthy’s SNL send ups made him a national laughing stock. Not exactly the kind of gravitas needed for an effective spokesperson.
- Don’t lie. Spicer’s spirited assertions of obvious lies also cost him credibility, distracted from the overall message the White House should have been putting out (if they had one) and further damaged the institution’s credibility. He could have maintained some if he had couched his arguments more in terms of what the president thinks or believes, what he wants you to know, etc. But instead, he took on Trump’s goofy lies as his own, starting with the size of the crowd at the inauguration.
Many press secretaries have repeated things that they later found out to be falsehoods, such as Ari Fleisher’s repeating George W. Bush’s propaganda about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in the runup to the second Iraq war. I doubt he knew it was BS. But Spicer kept no distance from Trump’s lies and made them his own.
Try not to do any harm, don’t make yourself into the story, maintain a detached stand by not owning the president’s obvious lies and try to tell the truth. Whether it pleases the boss or not, it is the way to do the job correctly.